Conventional wisdom suggests that Gordon Sumner surrendered his credibility when he left The Police, letting his pretentiousness overcome him as he dabbled in jazz and saved the rain-forests. As a singles’ artist he couldn’t match the brilliant individual songs like ‘Message In A Bottle’ he wrote for The Police. But while The Police’s albums often felt padded out with filler, the longer gaps between Sting’s solo albums gave him the chance to write more satisfying records.
Even though I like him, there’s a limit to my Sting tolerance; I get off the bus before 1999’s Brand New Day, of which the most redeeming feature is Stevie Wonder’s harmonica on the title track. Additionally, while he’s a thoughtful, conscientious songwriter, he’s also supreme at awkward couplets like “In Europe and America/There’s a growing feeling of hysteria” or “We’d only stopped for a few burritos/But they told us of the trouble with los banditos.”
Sting was born Gordon Sumner, and gained his nickname from a striped jersey he wore as a school teacher. Conflict with drummer Stewart Copeland was one of the reasons for the breakup of The Police after 1983’s Synchronicity, and in 1985 he recorded The Dream of the Blue Turtles. While jazz had always been a part of the lexicon of The Police, it was more pronounced in his solo career, while he explored world music on 1987’s Nothing Like The Sun. 1993’s Ten Summoner’s Tales hit the mainstream with ‘Fields of Gold’, ‘It’s Probably Me’, and ‘If I Ever Lose My Faith In You’.
I imagine that Sting’s career in the 21st century confirms all the accusations of pretentiousness that his detractors throw at him, although I’m too scared to listen to albums like Symphonicities and Sacred Love to find out. But despite some inherent ridiculousness, it’s difficult to deny that Sting is one of the most talented pop musicians of his era. He can sing, play, and write songs, but perhaps his unique persona, an intellectual with no self-filter, just doesn’t make for a convincing pop star.
Sting Album Reviews
Strongest Album: The Soul Cages
Overlooked Gem: …Nothing Like The Sun
The Dream of the Blue Turtles
Sting was still a member of The Police when he recorded his first solo album, 1985’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles. He leaves the bass to Darryl Jones and plays guitar here, while the band includes jazz veterans like Branford Marsalis and Omar Hakim. Apart from the brief jazz instrumental of the title track, it’s largely song-based and accessible; if anything, it feels like Sting’s trying too hard for crossover hits with songs like ‘Love is the Seventh Wave’ and ‘If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free’, which ultimately feel hollow for me.
There is one pop masterpiece here though; closer ‘Fortress Around Your Heart’ balances taut verses with a glorious, open chorus, and it’s one of the few songs from Sting’s solo career that stands up to the best singles from The Police. Elsewhere, the moody, jazzy ‘Moon Over Bourbon Street’ is a highlight, as are the moody social conscious pieces like ‘Children’s Crusade’ and ‘Russians’. There’s an interesting re-working of ‘Shadows in the Rain’ from Zenyatta Mondatta.
The Dream of the Blue Turtles is a respectable start to Sting’s solo career, but there’s a disconnect between the singles and the moodier album tracks, although ‘Fortress Around Your Heart’ bridges the divide neatly.
…Nothing Like The Sun
According to Wikipedia, the title …Nothing Like The Sun comes from an incident in which Sting quoted a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) in a conversation with a drunk. …Nothing Like The Sun is the kind of high minded fare you’d expect from a man who’s happy to quote Shakespeare to a drunk; it’s like a more refined version of the jazz flavoured The Dream of the Blue Turtles.
Sting feels more comfortable in his own skin this time – the outlying track is ‘We’ll Be Together’, another forced sounding single which was apparently added at the record company’s insistence. But otherwise, Sting is exploring introspective, socially conscious music, that largely abandons rock and roll for jazz and world music textures. Highlights include ‘They Dance Alone’, about widows from Chile’s Pinochet regime, and the moody opener ‘The Lazarus Heart’, both of which could have been Peter Gabriel songs. The jazzy ‘Englishman in New York’ is quintessentially Sting, while there’s a beautiful cover of Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’. There’s also plenty of moody, slow paced material like ‘Fragile’ and ‘Be Still My Beating Heart’.
It’s serious, high-minded, and the lyrics are occasionally awkward, as you’d expect from solo Sting, but …Nothing Like The Sun is easily one of his most consistent and enjoyable solo discs.
The Soul Cages
The Soul Cages was written in response to the death of Sting’s father. It’s effectively a concept album, with Sting wrestling with issues like his relationship with his father, his father’s Catholicism, and his childhood in the industrial port of Newcastle; while the themes run through the album, there’s also a story arc that runs through ‘Island of Souls’ and the title track. The subject matter lends itself to different instrumentation, like the folk sound of Northumbrian pipes on some tracks. On these personal songs, Sting’s lyrics here are among his strongest, and rarely awkward.
The central track here is ‘Why Should I Cry For You’, a beautiful ballad where Sting wrestles with his relationship with his father – a pretty folk-like melody accompanied with exotic percussion. ‘The Wild, Wild Sea’ is even more introspective and intense, where the repetitive melody sets the stage for the lyrics (“When the bridge to heaven is broken/And you’re lost on the wild wild sea”) and building tension. The guitar rock of the title track is also engrossing, but in hindsight it probably shouldn’t have won the Grammy for best rock song in front of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. There are also strong songs that don’t quite fit in with the rest of the album; ‘Mad About You’ is a melodic single, while ‘Jeremiah Blues Pt. 2’ is a fun blues-jazz romp, although ‘When The Angels Fall’ doesn’t have quite enough ideas to sustain its length.
Sting himself nominates The Soul Cages as his best album, and he’s since returned to the material with The Last Ship. It’s not flawless, but it’s a major work from an artist who’s sometimes unfairly disparaged.
Ten Summoner’s Tales
After two ultra serious albums, Sting adopted a breezy commercial template for Ten Summoner’s Tales; the Chaucer-like title is derived from his birth surname of Sumner. Musically, the album’s based around light dance beats, and many of the songs sound interchangeable. But the singles sound more effortless than anywhere else in his solo career, and it’s not surprising that it’s his best selling solo album, even if it’s less compelling as an entire piece than its predecessors.
The vague lyrics of the acoustic ‘Fields of Gold’ fits perfectly into the evocative melody – it’s probably the song that Sting’s solo career will be remembered for. ‘If I Ever Lose My Faith In You’ is effortlessly upbeat and appealing, with its gospel pop feel. I prefer the light jazz version of ‘It’s Probably Me’ here to the acoustic version from the Lethal Weapon soundtrack, while ‘Shape Of My Heart’ is a pretty acoustic song. ‘Love Is Stronger Than Justice’ is notable for its lyrics, which are awkward even by Sting’s standards; “The outcome was predictable/Our banditos were despicable/Of blood we lost a dozen litres/A small price to pay for los senoritas.” But elsewhere there’s a bunch of interchangeable upbeat pop songs with dance-able beats; they’re melodic, but it feels like a formula.
On Ten Summoner’s Tales Sting finds a commercially befitting sound and rides it into the ground; it features some great singles though.
Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984–1994
1994, not rated
I don’t want to rate this, because I think his individual albums are better buys; this compilation emphasises his awkward attempts at hit singles like ‘We’ll Be Together’ and ‘Love is the Seventh Wave’. But the two new songs are both solid; ‘When We Dance’ is a pretty romantic ballad, and ‘This Cowboy Song’ is upbeat and introspective. There are differing versions out there – the international version omits ‘Fortress Around Your Heart’ for some bizarre reason.
Mercury Falling is Sting’s last gasp of respectability. It feels like a slide into irrelevancy, largely in the way that Sting’s casting around for different styles – there’s some of the slick dance pop of Ten Summoner’s Tales, some dabbling in country, a nautical ballad that could have fitted onto The Soul Cages, and so on. The result is an inconsistent grab bag of styles; Mercury Falling has moments where it’s very strong, but it’s easily less coherent than the albums that preceded it.
Mercury Falling gets off to a great start with ‘The Hounds of Winter’ and ‘I Hung My Head’, the former has a hint of psychedelia with its swirling strings, while the latter is a dark tale of murder that Johnny Cash later covered. The grower is ‘I Was Bought To My Senses’, a slow burning gospel song which takes forever to deliver the rewarding chorus, while the dance pop songs like ‘You Still Touch Me’ and ‘All Four Seasons’ sound better when there’s not a whole album of them to wade through. But some of Mercury Falling is disagreeable; ‘Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot’ is a forced self-help anthem, while the country trappings of ‘I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying’ and ‘Lithium Sunset’ don’t suit Sting. It was probably inevitable that Sting would break into French one day, but the results on ‘La Belle Dame Sans Regrets’ still aren’t pretty.
If you enjoyed Sting’s previous albums, it’s worth checking in on the best songs from Mercury Falling. But after hearing 1999’s Brand New Day, and hearing rumours of lutes, Sacred Love, and Christmas albums in his subsequent solo career, this is where I get off the bus.
Ten Favourite Sting Songs
They Dance Alone
Fortress Around Your Heart
If I Ever Lose My Faith In You
Why Should I Cry For You
The Wild, Wild Sea
Jeremiah Blues, pt. 2
Englishman in New York
I Hung My Head
When We Dance
Fields of Gold
Back to 1980s Reviews…